Lawrence Harmon

Carson Beach is not a battleground

A state trooper patrols Carson Beach on Wednesday afternoon. A state trooper patrols Carson Beach on Wednesday afternoon. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Lawrence Harmon
June 3, 2011

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CARSON BEACH in South Boston is the city’s bellwether. When it’s peaceful, swimmable, and fishable, all seems well in Boston. When Carson is chaotic and polluted, a storm of some sort is on the way. That’s why the recent outbursts on the beach by large groups of teenagers, along with a clumsy response by State Police, are such causes for concern.

Memorial Day weekend brought a lot of teenagers from across the city to Carson Beach. Normally, that’s a good thing. In this case, there were troublemakers on the beaches who required police attention, including several brawling girls. But the State Police, who have jurisdiction on the state-owned beach, created a false impression of a war on the waterfront and even went so far as to clear the scene of children and families.

Boston youth and Carson Beach both deserve a more thoughtful approach.

For almost 20 years, state environmental officials have made a huge effort to attract people to the Boston Harbor beaches. It wasn’t always an easy sell.

Beaches along South Boston and Dorchester were viewed by much of the public as barely better than cesspools back in the 1970s and ’80s. The subsequent $4 billion public investment in new sewage treatment facilities would transform Boston Harbor and the water’s edge. Carson and other beaches in Boston now rank among the cleanest urban beaches in the United States — and should top that list when the latest improvement, a 2-mile sewage and stormwater tunnel beneath Day Boulevard, comes on line in a few weeks.

After all this progress, recent State Police descriptions of fights “between members of rival Boston street gangs’’ — which were not accurate, according to the better informed Boston police — create unnecessary public wariness of one of the city’s greatest assets just as swimming season is getting underway.

A State Police advisory describing its future deployment strategy along the beach gives a good glimpse into the mindset of this military-style operation. “This surge will begin this afternoon and will continue into the night,’’ reads the May 31 advisory, “and will be repeated every day indefinitely.’’

This surge? This is a beach in South Boston, for heaven’s sake, not Iraq’s Anbar province.

Mayor Menino and Boston police commissioner Edward Davis have seen and heard enough. They want the Legislature to give the Boston police primary jurisdiction over the city’s beaches. It’s a reasonable request, and an outcome that would be in the best interest of the beach-going public.

“Our police know who the players are,’’ said Menino. “They understand youth crime.’’ Just as important, urban police understand how the clean-up of the harbor and renewal of the beaches created a place for everyone in the city to escape the pressures of urban life. The Boston police would know better than to scare away people over an incident that didn’t warrant such treatment.

Technically, the beaches are on state property under the management of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. But the beaches are also extensions of the city’s neighborhoods. And the neighborhood policing style of the Boston police is the best way to keep them safe and accessible.

The State Police may be top-notch when it comes to patrolling broad swaths of highway and highly-controlled environments, such as Logan Airport. But the troopers lack the urban touch. That’s why they had trouble distinguishing a bunch of kids on a beach lark from the feral gangs that rarely roam far from their own neighborhoods in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. None of this is to excuse the teenagers who were fighting or engaged in other rowdy behavior. But casually hanging the gang label on them and others in the crowd showed a lack of understanding of the city. Many of Boston’s young people have made great efforts, at some personal risk, to stay out of the gang life.

The restored bathhouse, pavilion, and snack bar at Carson Beach make it a great spot for a family outing. The police who patrol the beach need to keep public access uppermost in their minds. Carson Beach is not an enemy shore to be cleared of personnel. It is not a beachhead in a battle between law enforcement and young people in Boston.

And if the State Police can’t see it for what it is, they should stand down from beach duty.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at